Who Balds Wins
As regular readers will hopefully have noticed, I try to stay positive, but every now and then circumstances seem to be conspiring to put me into a bit of a grump. For example, I'm starting to get a bit exasperated with the (what seem to me to be) snobbish film-booking policies of the major cinema chains in central Oxford: whoever's in charge here seems to have something against no-frills low-brow action movies. In the last year, Machete never made it into the city, nor did the remake of The Mechanic, and it looks like Killer Elite isn't going to put in an appearance there, either.
However, thanks to the good nature and willingness to try something new of my landlady, this turned out not to be a problem and off we trundled to the out-of-town leisure complex to see the aforementioned Killer Elite, directed by Gary McKendry and starring– but of course!–one of my favourite performers, Jason Statham. To be perfectly it honest it feels like a long time since Statham turned up in a genuinely good movie, but, as I said, I try to stay positive.
In the early Eighties, Danny Bryce (Statham) and his old friend Hunter (Robert de Niro, sleepwalking) have a good thing going as soldiers of fortune ('assassins' might be a less charitable description) in troublespots around the world. But Bryce's attempts to put all the killing behind him hit a snag when Hunter is taken hostage by an exiled Omani sheikh, who has a simple request to make.
During the Dhofar rebellion, three of the sheikh's sons were killed by members of the British SAS. Now dying himself, the sheikh is determined to avenge their deaths, or he's determined that Bryce is going to avenge them, which is much the same thing. For the sake of his friend, Bryce takes the assignment. However, the SAS look after their own, and his research into the targets attracts the attention of a cabal of former members of the unit. Not taking kindly to having former comrades assassinated, they assign slightly-unhinged veteran Spike Logan (Clive Owen) to stop him.
Well, I didn't turn up to this one with very high expectations, which may be why it turned out to be such a pleasant surprise: for me this was a genuinely really good action movie (after a somewhat dodgy opening section, admittedly). It does feel like a bit of a long haul towards the end– there are just a few twists and turns too many– but it makes up for this by having more than the usual excuse for a plot and a genuine sense of verisimilitude about it.
McKendry employs his crash-bang-wallop sequences more sparingly than you might expect, but there's definite tension as the assassins and the SAS counter-strike group cagily circle each other, and the action that there is is gritty and mostly credible. Statham gets a moment of glorious, characteristic nonsense when he beats up two men and jumps out of a window, all the while tied to a chair, but better still is a crunchily effective fight between him and Owen. This manages to be credible, yet cinematic: both actors are easily convincing and– crucially– the camera isn't jumping around all over the place so you can actually tell what's happening. The rest of the action is lower-key but just as effectively staged.
Statham's action man credentials are surely well-established by now, but the extent of his acting ability is still subject to some debate. I think he does a very good job here: Bryce is a lot more conflicted than most of the characters Statham's known for and that's all there in his performance. The film is helped hugely by having two performers like Statham and Owen facing off at its heart: Owen is just as good in a slightly trickier part. I'm not sure what it says when both of these actors comfortably outperform Robert de Niro on virtually every level, except that de Niro's decline as a great screen actor is surely no longer a matter for debate.
Very pleasingly, McKendry has taken a film that's set in the early Eighties and made it look as though it was made at that time– the colours look washed-out, the picture is almost grainy, and even the graphic design looks decades out of date. (I hope this was a deliberate choice or I've just delivered a massive insult.) It all adds to a story which operates almost entirely in shades of grey and in the shadows themselves: for all that he's motivated by friendship and doing so reluctantly, Bryce is still planning the murders of three men, and his associates are thugs and psychos, mercenaries in the purest sense of the word. On the other hand, while Logan is in theory protecting his old comrades, he's clearly more than a little unhinged and totally unable to walk away from the military life. This film is not a serious psychological drama by any means, and these aren't much more than grace notes, but it's still massively more believable and involving than the characterisations in, to choose a recent example, Colombiana.
Killer Elite is based on a book by the famous explorer and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes (which in turn was supposedly based on fact). Fiennes himself was in the SAS for a while before being kicked out for trying to blow up the set of Doctor Dolittle (not the Eddie Murphy version, obviously, no jury would have convicted), which explains the connection. Anyway, the only serious brick I must throw at this film is that Ranulph Fiennes himself appears in it as a character. This just seems bizarre and slightly surreal, given how famous he is for other things these days. 'Get me everything yer've got on Ranulph Fiennes!' snarls Jason Statham to his researcher at one point, and later on Statham and the Fiennes character actually have a fight. Writing Fiennes into the film is unnecessary and it's arguably a serious misjudgement to do so, threatening to turn the whole thing into an offbeat, bathetic comedy. It just about survives with its credibility intact, though.
Killer Elite's chances of success seem to have been hampered by the decision to release it on the same day as a couple of other films which are gunning for the same blokey audience, but which seem to be garnering rather better notices for their style or performances or whatever. Killer Elite may not be the best film of the week, but I would still hate to see it fail simply through being overlooked: in terms of performance, atmosphere, credible plotting, and even in some ways the quality of the action, this is probably one of the best movies Jason Statham has ever made.